In the last 24 hours, the media have gotten sucked into a supposed dispute between President Donald Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr — but it’s really not a fight at all, and the coverage itself has just served as a distraction from the real story of Barr’s interference in politically sensitive cases that could damage Trump.
Barr gave an interview Thursday to ABC News in which he objected to Trump’s tweets that urged a reversal of the sentencing recommendations against his former campaign associate Roger Stone. Barr insisted he had already decided to change the recommendations before Trump made his interjections.
“To have public statements and tweets made about the department, about people in the department, our men and women here, about cases pending in the department, and about judges before whom we have cases, make it impossible for me to do my job,” Barr said, “and to assure the courts and the prosecutors in the department that we’re doing our work with integrity.”
But there’s just one complication here: If Barr is supposedly breaking with Trump, then why did the White House go out of its way to issue a statement of continued “full faith and confidence” in him?
Barr’s overruling of the sentencing recommendation in the Stone case has led to four resignations at the Justice Department. And instead of getting clarity on what happened here, ABC News and other media outlets allowed themselves to get sucked into a cycle of an artificial dispute between Trump and Barr.
The New York Times characterized Barr’s statement as “an extraordinary rebuke of President Trump,” and cited some unnamed source close to Barr who presented him in a seemingly heroic and principled light:
The attorney general had been contemplating how to respond since he became aware of Mr. Trump’s attacks on the department, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Speaking up could have put Mr. Barr at risk of losing the backing of the president, but remaining silent would have permitted Mr. Trump to continue attacking law enforcement and all but invited open revolt among the some 115,000 employees of the Justice Department.
Ultimately, Mr. Barr concluded that he had to speak out to preserve his ability to do his job effectively, the person said.
The Washington Post also called Barr’s statement an “assertion of independence that could jeopardize his tenure as the nation’s top law enforcement official,” and a “remarkable public rebuke of the president by a sitting member of his Cabinet,” and similarly cited sources close to Barr.
On CNN’s coverage, anchor Wolf Blitzer spoke of Barr’s “very strong words,” and that it was a “surprise” for Barr to say these things after having been so loyal to Trump: “He’s blasting the president, and effectively, as I said, telling the president to shut up.” Legal analyst Jim Baker then added that “this is the Bill Barr that I’m familiar with. … This is sort of the strong, independent leader, a person of integrity and intelligence, and speaking out loudly for his troops.”
Though later on, prime-time host Chris Cuomo called it out as a media ploy, noting the White House’s statement of continued confidence in Barr: “You’ve never heard him say that about anybody who said anything close to what Barr just did. I wonder why.”
But Friday morning, CBS News called it a “forceful and unexpected challenge to President Trump” and said that Trump had “fire[d] a warning shot”:
And over in right-wing media, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs castigated Barr, declaring that Barr “works for the president of the United States. He works for the American people, he's not independent by any measure.”
But on the other hand, Fox News host Laura Ingraham explained what was really going on: “The media sees this sexy story of Trump versus Barr, but they missed the fact that Barr was basically telling Trump, ‘Don't worry, I got this.’”
And Will Chamberlain of Human Events called it “some old school PR wizardry.”
Essentially, in the wake of impeachment, the president has asserted a broad right to have the Justice Department investigate his opponents and go easy on his friends — and all that’s really happened just now is that the attorney general is asking the president to stop saying this out loud, because it makes getting away with the whole thing that much harder.